Medi-spas sometimes give the impression that some workers are medically trained, but because the fines are so low for violations, medi-spas are getting away with operating without a doctor.
Now under a doctor's supervision, Joanna Mello is healing from the laser burns she suffered a few months ago. The registered nurse wanted some spider veins removed but instead of going to a doctor, she went to a medi-spa, where it was cheaper, but there was no doctor present.
"Within a few minutes, I had developed severe red marks and it was very apparent they were burns," Mello said.
The International Spa Association says more than 1,500 medi-spas opened in the United States from 2002 to 2010. Many are legal. In California, they are supposed to be run by doctors, but often a business will pay doctors to lend their names and licenses but will not actually have them there for elective procedures like laser hair removal or Botox.
"Esthetic procedures generate income and there are people who just want to jump on the band wagon and make a lot of money," Dr. Suzanne Kilmer, a dermatologist, said.
When a doctor isn't around for the procedure, frightening things can happen.
A bill signed by Gov. Jerry Brown this month cracks down on medi-spas starting Jan. 1 by increasing the fines from roughly $1,200 to $50,000 if doctors aren't involved. Prison time is also possible. It's all to protect consumers.
"So, it's a medically-owned establishment run as a medical practice as opposed to a corporation that just comes in and wants to churn through a bunch of clients," Kilmer said. "We call them patients."
Mello's leg has come a long way. She's glad a crackdown on medi-spas is coming, so fewer patients have to suffer.
"It'll be there for the rest of my life," she said. "A good deal isn't always going to be a good outcome."
A defense attorney told me the penalties are too strong. Sometimes businesses don't know they're breaking the law. She feels an education campaign that tells medi-spas what they can and can't do is a better way to go.